September 7 is an important date for New Hampshire. On that day, Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson will kick-off his 2012 national campaign to cut Social Security and other vitally important programs with a "town meeting" at St. Anselm's College in Manchester at 5 p.m.
The American people should not be fooled by the misinformation that will be spread at these "grassroots" gatherings backed by some of the most powerful Wall Street, insurance, and corporate CEOs in the country.
The goal of these "town meetings" is to convince the people of New Hampshire and the rest of America that the only effective way to address the deficit crisis is to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the children the sick and the poor.
Don't believe it!
First, let us never forget how we got into our current deficit crisis.
In January of 2001, when Bill Clinton left office, this country was enjoying a very healthy $236 billion SURPLUS projected to increase in the coming years.
Under President George W. Bush and his fellow "deficit hawks," the United States went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq and "forgot" to pay for the wars which will end up adding some $3 trillion to our national debt.
Under George W. Bush and his fellow "deficit hawks," the wealthiest people in this country were given huge tax breaks which cost $1 trillion over a 10-year period. There was no offset for those tax breaks. They were simply added to the deficit.
Under George W. Bush and his fellow "deficit hawks," an overly-expensive Medicare prescription drug program written by the insurance and drug companies was signed into law. This program, which explicitly prevented the government from negotiating lower drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry, was not paid for and will end up adding some $400 billion to our national debt over a 10-year period.
Now, having run up huge deficits, our born-again "deficit hawks," on behalf of their billionaire allies, want to cut Social Security to save money.
What's wrong with this picture? First, despite Wall Street and right-wing misleading rhetoric, Social Security, which is funded by the payroll tax, has not contributed one nickel to the deficit. Second, the Social Security Trust Fund today, according to the Social Security Administration, has a $2.7 trillion surplus and can pay 100 percent of all benefits owed to every eligible American for the next 21 years.
Why should we vigorously defend Social Security, prevent any cuts and, in fact, make sure Social Security is solvent for the next 75 years? The answer is obvious. In these highly volatile economic times, when millions of Americans lost their life savings in the 2008 Wall Street crash, Social Security, through good economic times and bad, has paid out every penny owed to every eligible beneficiary. In other words, it is a guaranteed benefit and that promise has always been kept.
In the 77 years since President Franklin Roosevelt signed Social Security into law on August 14, 1935, the retirement and insurance program has been one of the nation's most successful anti-poverty programs. Before Social Security existed, about half of America's senior citizens lived in poverty. Today, less than 10 percent live in poverty. Further, Social Security provides much-needed assistance to people with disabilities as well as widows, widowers and orphans.
Let's be clear. The deficit and national debt are serious issues, but we must not balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor. This would not only be immoral, it would be bad economic policy.
While our billionaire friends may not like them, there are much fairer ways to reduce the deficit. At a time when the wealthiest people in this country are doing phenomenally well and their effective tax rate is the lowest in decades, the top 1 percent must begin paying their fair share of taxes. At a time when large corporations are enjoying record-breaking profits, we have got to eliminate the huge corporate loopholes which result in a massive loss of federal revenue. At a time when we have tripled military spending since 1997, we must take a hard look at a bloated and wasteful Defense Department.
To keep Social Security's finances sound in the future I have introduced legislation -- identical to a proposal that President Obama advocated in 2008 -- to apply the payroll tax on incomes above $250,000 a year. Under current law, only earnings up to $110,100 are taxed. The Center for Economic Policy and Research has estimated that applying the Social Security payroll tax on income above $250,000 would only impact the wealthiest 1.4 percent of wage earners.
While we often take Social Security for granted, we must not forget that Social Security today is providing dignity and security to tens of millions of Americans at very modest administrative cost. It is a program that is working and working well.
Now is the time to defend Social Security against billionaires, right-wing Republicans, and some Democrats who want to cut this program. Let's send them that message in New Hampshire on September 7.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is the longest serving independent in U.S. congressional history and the founder of the Defending Social Security Caucus.